Film Review: Mr Turner

Somehow, this film made a deep impression. I’m still trying to figure out why. For it was not the acting, though it gets rave reviews. Presumably it was light, mood, impressions, rather than acting and events in the film “Mr Turner”.

For a lover of the Venice paintings and early Turner, this biographic film starts too late in Turner’s life. He’s already moved to London, though the film starts with him travelling on the continent. During this film, we see Turner evolving into an early impressionist and dealing with various human relations, and changes in fortune. The film ends with his death – about 1862.

The opening scene takes place in 19th century Holland. It shows Turner absorbed in sketching landscape and sky. It is followed by his unexpected arrival home. Like many a focussed and self-centred artist, he couldn’t be bothered to keep the home front informed of his whereabouts.

In the film, the close bond between father and son is stressed. It was Turner’s father, who enabled Turner to become a great painter. In the film, dad ensures the ingredients for the home-made paints are there and also mixes these paints for his son. Dad ensures cloth is turned into the right size of canvas. Dad does the shopping. Dad shows clients around the studio, trying to sell paintings. Dad maintains contact with and receives visiting family.

Housekeeper Hanna – apparently related to Turner’s wife – is there to clean, cook, do household chores, as well as being available for the occasional sexual release.

Turner does have a family, but steers clear of any family relationships and ties. Where they hardly get financial support, fellow painters do. This can partly be explained by the traumatic experience of having had a mentally ill mother, as well as being a totally focussed artist.

The portrayal of Turner by Timothy Spall reminded me very much of the late Warren Clarke in his role as Inspector Dalziel. Somehow, for me, this interfered with totally appreciating the film. Throughout the film, Turner mainly communicates by grunting like a pig.

This contrasts too greatly with Turner’s capability to put silly asses like Ruskin into place, or rightly diagnose what’s wrong in the Ruskin marriage. In the film, Turner shows he may be an autodidact, but is no fool. He’s capable of great empathy and sensitivity and this film portrays Turner with all his foibles and weaknesses.

It also shows, how like so many other Victorians, Turner lived a complicated life. Dickens separated and lived with a young actress. Wilkie Collins was a bigamist whose families lived close to each other. Ruskin’s Effie eloped with Millais – to name a few. The film shows how the married Turner finds a new love in Margate. The widowed Mrs Booth will eventually move to Chelsea where Turner and she pretend to be married.

During an interview, Timothy Spall explained how much time he spent learning to paint like Turner. The scene showing a Turner tied to the mast of a ship during a storm, is true. Turner wanted to experience a storm, in order to capture the whole impression even better on canvas. His late paintings are very close to impressionistic paintings and the Victorian public did not appreciate them.

The film also shows Turner’s interest in new developments and science. There is the scene where Turner and friends row past the “Temeraire” being towed up the Thames. His painting will show the old, wooden, battleship towering over a small tugboat. Yet it is the small steam tug which pulls it towards its grave. Or as Turner states in the film: steam is the future.

There are many touching and hilarious scenes as well. The meeting with and later visit to father and son Ruskin for instance. Or Turner dabbing a dollop of red paint on someone else’s painting during the preparation for a grand opening. Then there is Hanna, finding out about Mrs Booth and the death of Turner’s dad – mirrored at the end by Turner’s own death.

The film may win awards, but there are problems. It’s not just the grunts. Most disturbing was the stilted imitation of what was supposed to be 18th and 19th century English. Sorry: this clashed dreadfully with the very clean 21st century interpretation of Victorian costumes and 21st century makeup.

Nevertheless: it’s a film well worth watching at least twice. It’s so full of details, many of these will escape you when you’re watching it for the first time.

Interestingly enough: while I was still munching on all the impressions this film left upon me, that very same evening, several of its actors were interviewed on television. Film director Mike Leigh and a few actors like Paul Jesson and Dorothy Atkinson announced they’re raising funds to help safe the last remaining house in which Turner lived: Turner’s house in Twickenham, which he designed himself.

“Mr Turner”: Mike Leigh director; Timothy Spalls as William Turner.
To admire many of Turner’s paintings, sketches, watercolours: The Tate Gallery, London

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